Bill Nye is known as "The Science Guy" to millions of people, but the popular celebrity scientist is now asking the public to help fund the new LightSail project, managed by The Planetary Society. This spacecraft will operate like a sailboat in space, driven by pressure from light emanating from the sun.
The first test flight of the LightSail craft is scheduled for May 20. However, this test vehicle will not be able to ride particles coming from the sun, and is being launched to test new technologies. The first operational flight of the spacecraft design will likely take place in 2016.
Total costs for the LightSail solar vehicle will run around $5.45 million, and The Planetary Society was still $1.2 million short of full operational costs for the program, inspiring the crowdfunding campaign. A majority of the $3.25 million already raised has come from private sources.
"Imagine it: unlimited free energy from the sun will provide CubeSats with propulsion and revolutionize access to space for low-cost citizen projects - projects like ours, or by teams of students and faculty at universities. This means that spacecraft, especially small ones like CubeSats, won't have to carry heavy fuels into orbit, and that the acceleration will be continuous," Nye wrote on the Kickstarter page dedicated to raising funds for the project.
The initial goal of raising $200,000 on Kickstarter was reached on April 13, leaving the Society with the task of raising $1 million dollars more to finance the entire project. The financial pledges came from more than 3,500 donors, each contributing an average of around $56.
LightSail, constructed in the form of a cube satellite (CubeSat), is only about the size of a loaf of bread. Yet, folded inside that tiny package is a large sail, designed to catch light from our local star to power journeys to other planetary bodies.
"Once in space, LightSail's solar arrays swing open, revealing the inside of the spacecraft. Four tape measure-like metal booms slowly unwind from storage, unfolding four triangular, Mylar sails. Each sail is just 4.5 microns thick - one-fourth the thickness of an average trash bag," The Planetary Society states on the program Web page.
The late astronomer Carl Sagan once talked to Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, pitching the idea of a spacecraft driven by a solar sail.
If everything goes according to plan, the second LightSail craft will launch into space aboard a Falcon Heavy rocket, designed by private developer SpaceX.
"We are advancing space exploration by lowering the cost of sending space crafts way out into space. This democratizes space ... one you're up there you can fly to the moon or beyond to other planets" Nye said.